One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1976 film, “All the President’s Men” with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Based on their 1974 book of the same title, the film was a chronicle of how two dogged young reporters uncovered and investigated the early 1970s break-in and burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, a hot spot of Washington, DC political intrigue. It was a scandal that rocked the nation and forever changed our view of how politics is seen and done.
The story the film conveys resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon and the criminal convictions of some senior White House staff. It is not just a film about history. It is a film that made history, and it chronicles with factual integrity a pivotal event that still reverberates throughout modern American politics.
Here on These Stone Walls last year, you actually met one of the key characters in that story in my post, “At Play in the Field of the Lord.” In part, it featured the late Charles Colson along with a photo of him in this prison ballfield standing just feet away from me. Charles Colson was a senior White House aide in the Nixon Administration who served time in a federal prison as an architect of the Watergate scandal and attempted cover-up.
Colson went on to become founder of Prison Fellowship, and he spearheaded that Evangelical network of prison ministry and prison reform dramatically. Along with TSW’s own prime mover, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, Colson also established Evangelicals and Catholics Together as a moral force to effect the direction of politics in America. By exemplifying a new set of facts about his life, Colson had altered the media’s availability bias – an automatic association of his name with Watergate. Now he is posthumously best known for his tireless evangelism of this nation’s discarded citizens.
Today, it is generally accepted among film historians and critics that “All the President’s Men” is more than just a work of film industry entertainment. It is a legacy that in dramatic fashion portrays a period in American history as it happened, JUST as it happened, factually and without flourish. Perhaps most importantly, this film has stood the test of time without the creation of a media phenomenon called availability bias, a well documented media tendency that demonstrates the difference between reporting a story and creating a story. For consumers of the news, a story “rings true” simply because the media has repeated it.
THE BOSTON GLOBE’S PERFECT STORM OF MORAL PANIC
Some news media critics have equated the film, “Spotlight” with “All the President’s Men.” The comparison falls very short for any number of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that “All the President’s Men” never had to rely on “rings true” as the basis of its underlying integrity. In fact, my favorite film critic, Joe Morgenstern, in my most respected media venue, The Wall Street Journal, disappointingly used the words “rang true” in his November 5, 2015 review of “Spotlight.”
I’m sorry, but that is a problem the news media simply cannot ignore. “Rings true” is NOT the same as “true.” For the evidence for that, and a view of the damage it can cause to both the accused and the media itself, just consider Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely and my post, “A Rolling Stone Gather No facts, Just Dirt.”
No one has done more to debunk the factual claims behind “Spotlight” than David F. Pierre, Jr., a recent guest writer at These Stone Walls and author of the small but potent book, Sins of the Press. Though a thorn in the side for movie producers, the book was published just weeks before the release of “Spotlight.”
In my post, “The Pulitzer Lies,” I described how The Boston Globe and other media transformed the factual underpinnings of an important story into the creation of a moral panic. In Sins of the Press, David F. Pierre has almost singlehandedly unraveled that moral panic, leaving many questions about the integrity and claims of the story portrayed in “Spotlight.”
That would be okay if “Spotlight” were marketed as simple entertainment. It isn’t. It claims to be historical drama – docudrama – and as such its contribution to the film industry rests in something much more substantial than its artistic production values or its value as a source of entertainment. “Mad Max: Fury Road7,” which has ten Oscar nominations including Best Picture, is entertainment. “The Revenant,” also with ten nominations, is entertainment. It swept the Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor while “Spotlight” was overlooked in every category despite having been heavily predicted in the media to win Best Picture at the Golden Globes. This points to a media disconnect between the value the media has placed on the story of scandal in the Catholic Church and the story underlying “Spotlight.”
In my recent post, “Mercy Frees Roman Polanski,” I wrote that I, too, was a part of the story the Globe covered. I attempted to bring factual but contrary information to two of the members of the Globe “Spotlight” team regarding very specific claims made in an extortion case in which a false claimant was accused of blackmailing a Boston priest. The fact that the extortionist brought past claims against other priests was highly relevant to the story, but the “Spotlight” Team members I approached at the Globe were unresponsive and unwilling to follow up on information that did not fit their preconceived bias. That fact seriously erodes the integrity of the Globe’s work which is the underpinning of “Spotlight,” and it could undermine the integrity of the Academy Awards if there is a failure to weigh the facts behind the film.
“Spotlight,” is presented to film going audiences, and to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as something far different than mere entertainment. It claims to be a fair and accurate portrayal of a public service. In fact, the very story it conveys is that of The Boston Globe’s investigative “Spotlight” Team and its coveted Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. It claimed to expose the gravely serious story of sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston, and a set of facts that took the story to the level of alleging a cover-up by Church officials. That claim, that story, and the aftermath of the Globe’s reporting requires a fact checker amid all the emotional rhetoric it has spawned.
Along that vein, a remarkable article appeared last month in The New York Times, “Before the Oscars, Some Films Face the Truth Test” (January 7, 2016) by Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes. It raised a very important point in a venue not usually known for questioning a story that it has also perpetuated:
“In the lead-up to the Academy Awards … more than a dozen high-profile dramas and comedies have faced factual questions, including “Spotlight”… Depending on the intensity, challenges of this sort can knock films to the back of the Oscar pack, awards strategists say.”
SINS OF THE PRESS
In the case of “Spotlight,” no one has provided those factual questions and a challenge to the story’s underlying integrity more than David F. Pierre and his 2015 book, Sins of the Press. David himself provided a snapshot from the book here on These Stone Walls recently in his guest post, “Spotlight on Spin.”
I also provided an analysis of the book and its impact on this story in “The Pulitzer Lies.” For anyone who has lived through the daily media barrage of The Boston Globe and its 2001 – 2004 coverage of scandal in the Catholic Church, David Pierre’s book provides a rational, factual redefining of the facts, and they are staggering. In their Times article, Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes addressed this challenge:
“‘Over all, I think the film is a misrepresentation of how the church dealt with sexual abuse cases,’ said David F. Pierre, Jr., who has criticized the film’s veracity online and has challenged The (Boston) Globe’s investigation in his book, Sins of the Press: The Untold Story of The Boston Globe’s Reporting on Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church.”
Predictably, the Times coverage of David Pierre’s challenge had some push back. Tom Ortenberg, chief executive of Open Road Films which produced “Spotlight,” responded that “Mr. Pierre is perpetuating a myth in order to distract from real stories of abuse, stories that continue to come to light every day.”
Really? Would Tom Ortenberg include in that coming to light the stories of Shamont Lyle Sapp that I wrote about just weeks ago in “Catholic Priests and the Perversions of Predators”? How about the Boston stories of Sean Murphy and his brother and Byron Worth that I described in that same post? Would he include the stories of Thomas Grover as told by Dorothy Rabinowitz in The Wall Street Journal?
It amazed me in his brief response to the Times coverage of David Pierre’s book just how clearly “Spotlight” producers adopted the rhetoric and tone of a typical response from S.N.A.P., the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. I, for one, would like to see evidence for Tom Ortenberg’s claim of “stories that continue, to come to light every day.” He said it, not because it is true, but because it “rings true.” The media has been getting away with “rings true” for far too long, but only as long as the availability bias holds up; only as long as hard questions are not asked.
In their bold Times article, Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes correctly asserted, “movies that claim the truth are bound to be measured against it.” That should happen liberally in this case, but Times movie critic, A.O. Scott added, “Movies that are not documentaries are works of fiction, whether or not they deal with real events.” That’s true of “All the President’s Men,” though forty years later the film remains a classic and no one questions its truthfulness. Does anyone really believe “Spotlight” will be considered such a landmark film forty years from now? Like the film’s presentation of truth, that’s a stretch.
But let’s consider for a final moment the fantasy that “Spotlight” really is on a par with “All the President’s Men” as a memorable contribution of the film industry. The hard reality is that “All the President’s Men” was nominated for the top Academy Awards for Best picture, Best Director, and Best Actor in 1976, but won none of them. The Best Picture Oscar in 1976 went to the screen adaptation of Ken Kesey’s’ “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
David F. Pierre is to be commended and supported for his bold, against-the-tide, reasoned reporting and timely book despite the final caveat emptor of Times’ writers Michael Cieply and Brookes Barnes: “But, hey, lighten up. It’s just a movie. And they don’t give an Oscar for telling the truth.”
Editor’s note: Father Gordon MacRae is recovering well from recent surgery, and he appreciates your prayers which have had a remarkable effect on his speedy recovery. What should have been a seven day hospital stay was less than three days. Our Ash Wednesday post on These Stone Walls may be a bit late. It will be a special report from the Vatican by Father George David Byers on his Ash Wednesday Commissioning by Pope Francis at Saint Peter’s Basilica as a Missionary of Mercy. This will be a very special event for These Stone Walls readers – with photos.